PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus


The View from Nebraska by peaceprobe
November 24, 2006, 12:22 pm
Filed under: Politics of Empire

It was the Sunday just prior to the U. S. November election as I looked out over the congregation at the Bethesda Mennonite Church in Henderson, Nebraska and then I began my sermon with these words. “The President is in the neighborhood and he likes to visit big churches. If he comes to Henderson this morning I know you will be nice to him and his security detail and I will keep preaching.”

It was Peace Sunday in this 500 member church, built to 1000. For years the church and surrounding community has been losing population due to the consolidation of agriculture into industrial farming. That Sunday afternoon, President Bush was scheduled to arrive in Grande Island 15 miles northwest of Henderson to give a final pitch for the local Republican congressman who was in a tight race. Since Bethesda Mennonite has one of the largest church buildings in the area, it occurred to me that the congregation should be prepared for an unexpected visit. 

When I completed my sermon and the marvelous choir had sung its final song the pastor did something that I had never experienced before. He told the congregation that he went to Sojourner’s Magazine Web site the previous week where he found some thoughtful suggestions about the coming election. He proceeded to read a few lines which didn’t tell people who to vote for but made some very thoughtful suggestions on what might guide Christians as they vote like justice for the poor.

Nebraska is a red state (even the football team wears red) but like many red states the red coloring fades into a rainbow of energy and color. The last time I was in Nebraska was 1968 to speak at the university in the midst of another polarizing war, Viet Nam. The brokenness of the nation today is in some ways similar in intensity but vastly different in content. My hosts 40 years ago are now retired or retiring, but their interest and their commitment continues. Every university and church I visited this time has someone responsible for peace and justice, a committee, an office or a student group. No such thing existed 40 years ago. In those days we organized through friends, connections and out of our back pocket. 

The language, peace and justice, had not yet been invented. As a minimum the peace and justice energy centers are points of contact and a venue for conversation which didn’t exist in the same way 40 years ago. Today so many people welcome nudges, deserve encouragement or thanks for their work. Nebraskans want their work to connect to the real world. Like the rest of us, Nebraskans are constrained by the dominant voices and culture of their situation but good peacemakers know this and always seek ways to turn constraints into opportunities. The people I met, touch and connect here and there to move things along in the great work of building a culture of peace that will reach long beyond our lifetime. I suspect there were people in church at Henderson who attended the Bush election event in Grande Island. I also suspect they carried some of our Sunday morning reflections in their hearts to that event.

The curiosity and enthusiasm of students in the various universities where I spoke infected me with energy. Informal conversations help me understand the world view. Having made several trips to Iraq over recent years I made the crisis there the center of my reflections. At the University of Nebraska a student approached me after one meeting to ask if she had permission to use my comments in her thesis on Nation Building. Forty years ago when the Democrats were in power a student at this same University asked me almost the same question. Doesn’t anything change? 

I gave her permission to use my comments in her thesis and then said “I don’t believe in nation building”. It came out with a few more expletives than it should have. After I caught my breath I explained that “nation building” language is part of the vocabulary of empire and almost always turns up in the context of wars to make things come out our way. It was the end of a long day and like so often happens to me I realized after the event that I could have been so much more helpful in my response by simply saying that a fundamental pillar of nation building is the acknowledgment of national borders and deep cultural forms. I should have said that the beginning of nation building advice in the Middle East might be directed to Israel where internationally determined borders are not respected. I might have even gone a little further to suggest some nation building at home where people long for the day when elections are really trusted and public discourse awakens the best is the human heart, a day when negative advertising is a long forgotten matter for study in a history dissertation. 

Tuesday night, I began the long drive through Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota on my way back to Canada and listened to the election results. I sensed a very soft collective sigh of relief sweeping the land, just strong enough that it could be felt, I hope as a gentle breeze that carried hope here in Canada and around the world. I struggled to hold my feet to the reality of the ground over which I traveled. For I knew that this imperfect election will be followed by new doses of reality all of which we must consider as we build our strategies of peacemaking. The George Bush supported Republican candidate in Western Nebraska won his race but it was close. I like to think about how the outcome might have been affected if the President’s entourage had experienced the warmth and commitment of the people at Bethesda Church. There was room for him and also for Donald Rumsfeld who is apparently out of work.

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